Note — Reader consensus below seems to be that I’m the one drinking the Flav-r-ade in this post, so proceed at your own risk. That’s not how I see it, of course. CNN asked me about this issue yesterday and I think it is pretty clear, but that may be in part a reflection of my background, who knows? Just as readers expect me to take responsibility for my words, I expect Apple to take responsibility for the performance of its products. The issue isn’t so much abortion clinics as what other big gaps exist in this service? When you call your doctor the recording says “If this is an emergency hang up and call 9-1-1…”
I don’t think Apple really wants to keep its customers from finding abortion services using Siri, the voice-based automated assistant built into iPhone 4S’s. But the company has been remarkably obtuse on the issue, making statements that deny intent, deny culpability, yet at the same time seem evasive. It’s time for Cupertino to learn a lesson in damage control.
Apple has been a charmed company since the 1997 return of co-founder Steve Jobs. Jobs enforced a culture of secrecy on Apple that worked well with its event marketing to make product launches really special and help Apple to become the success it is today. Elements of this strategy are refusing comment, making vague denials, deliberately delaying news or releasing out of cadence with normal news flow, in at least two incidents threatening or actually filing lawsuits against the media, or alternately not appearing to give a damn.
To paraphrase Steve Jobs, I don’t mean this in a small way, I mean it in a big way when I say this attitude appears to me to be by design and pervades the entire company, not just PR.
Visit any Apple store and you’ll see it. Those Apple kids in their t-shirts are friendly and helpful and good at their jobs but don’t you get the sense that they’re drunk on Flav-r-ade? They know what they can and can’t, will and won’t do for you and for all the tattoos and Converse sneakers they aren’t going to go a millimeter over that line. And then there’s their sense of time — AppleTime — which is different from yours and mine, have you noticed?
They live in the zone, while we’re just visiting.
This is fine when things are going beautifully and customers are lined-up down the block, but how well does it work when things aren’t going right, like in this Siri situation? Badly. Apple comes off looking insensitive and smug.
They blamed the problem on Yelp, its supplier of local business data, which could well be correct, but Apple never said “and we’ll fix it right away.”
They blamed the problem on Siri being in beta. I didn’t know that, did you? Siri is part of IOS 5, is that in beta? I didn’t know that and I suspect most of the folks at Apple didn’t know that. In fact I might even go so far as to wonder if it is even true?
Blaming beta software for bad performance is Google’s bag, not Apple’s. That was a stupid PR move and stupid PR moves happen when companies panic.
Which suggests a leadership vacuum of sorts at Apple.
With Steve Jobs gone, the company has told itself and told the world that it won’t try to second-guess Steve’s ghost — no asking “what would Steve do?” But what happens if they don’t have a ready answer to the question “What should Apple do?”
I think that’s what we are seeing here.
There’s a huge lesson for Apple PR in my movie Steve Jobs — The Lost Interview. In one section Steve talks about how companies with monopolies (the examples he used were Xerox and IBM) get caught-up in process because — as monopolies — their content is almost immaterial to success. If everyone is already buying your product then there’s little incentive to make better products so companies come to concentrate on themselves rather than pleasing customers.
Ironically Apple appears to have fallen into this very abyss. They are so caught up in their own process of information and damage control that the actual problem with Siri doesn’t appear to matter to them. Their statements suggest things will improve in a few weeks. This is an example of AppleTime.
Why should it take that long to fix? It shouldn’t and it won’t, but Apple appears to not want to empower us by communicating honestly. They want to surprise us by fixing it by next Tuesday, yet don’t respect us enough to explain the plan.
Their first thought is to dissemble, not to accept responsibility. They seem to think solely about how this abortion incident could hurt them, not how it could be a chance to show Apple’s character — a chance to have character.
Everyone appears to be too busy covering asses and trying to control the process to actually fix the problem.
Maybe after 16 years Steve forgot his own lesson, but I’m guessing that if he read this column he’d get it right away. And Steve would learn from it, because he was one guy who wasn’t afraid to admit when he was wrong.
At least that’s what he says in our movie.